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Keep open the window on nuclear labs’ work

SANTA FE, N.M. — A recent proposal to kill off public safety reports on the nation’s nuclear weapons labs was a bad idea. Let’s hope it’s been permanently nuked to smithereens.

Frank Klotz, administrator of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Safety Administration, wanted to end public access to reports by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The board, created by Congress, issues regular updates on safety issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other sites around the country, with local staffers on the ground at the labs and other nuclear facilities.

As reported last week by Patrick Malone of the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism nonprofit, Klotz proposed making the DNFSB reports secret. One of the board’s members briefly circulated a plan to stop releasing the weekly or monthly safety reports and replacing them with oral reports to board officials in Washington.

Klotz told the board that safety issues made public in the DNFSB reports and posted online were potentially counterproductive to the NNSA’s mission, according to Malone’s report. Klotz was irritated by news coverage in New Mexico about the recent DNFSB disclosure of a “criticality safety event” where workers constructing part of a nuclear weapons trigger put two parts with plutonium near each other and exceeded limits intended to prevent an uncontrolled nuclear reaction, resulting in a pause in operations. There also had been a low-level radiation contamination incident.

Malone’s sources said that Klotz argued that the public reporting of such incidents would make workers reluctant to report safety lapses, to avoid embarrassment, in effect arguing that secrecy would improve accountability at the labs.

Fortunately, a proposal based on Klotz’s idea has been withdrawn. The DNFSB’s reports provide crucial transparency for nuclear lab operations.

Lab supporters argue that incidents like the recent “criticality safety event” are in fact reassuring – the plutonium limits are set well below where a disaster could take place and the safety system worked in this case. NNSA said “there has not been a nuclear criticality accident at a Department of Energy nuclear facility in nearly 40 years.”

News organizations have a responsibility to report accurately and non-sensationally on the DNFSB’s findings. The labs and the NNSA are free to challenge how the safety incidents are portrayed in the news media.

But shutting the small window that the safety board provides on lab operations should never happen. The weapons labs’ work is important, very expensive and includes many operations that are inherently hazardous. The more scrutiny, the better.